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In parched Beijing, claims of a ‘green’ Olympics may not hold water

A skier and a snowboarder at the Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Chongli county in China’s Hebei province, last month. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Barren hillsides broken up by thin strips of white snow are a familiar sight for regular visitors to ski resorts near Beijing. The 2022 Winter Olympics host, which is under 150 miles from the rapidly expanding Gobi Desert, is famous for cold and dry winters.

Its population relies on water extracted from underground and fed in from wetter regions via a vast network of pipes and canals. In March, before spring rains, winds from the Mongolian Plateau often fill the city’s skies with orange dust.

China’s government promises that just about every aspect of the Olympics will be “green.” According to officials, the Games will be “carbon-neutral.” President Xi Jinping has said they will be “inclusive, open and clean.”

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Such claims, part of China’s effort to cast itself as a global leader on sustainability and climate change, are difficult to square with the country’s broader environmental challenges. Beijing’s water scarcity is a concern for environmentalists, with one estimate suggesting it could take 200 years for water piped into the city to return water resources to 1998 levels.

The country is also the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and has avoided announcing a moratorium on coal-fired power. Even as Beijing organizers promise to buy purely renewable electricity for Games venues, the capital and surrounding Hebei province, where co-host Zhangjiakou is located, rely on fossil fuels for the bulk of their electricity. China consumes half the world’s coal; output rose nearly 5 percent to a record 4.07 billion tons last year as the government ordered more production to combat power shortages.

That China’s Games-specific pledges may ultimately fail to translate into progress on environmental causes fits with a habit of the Olympics disappointing on its goal to encourage sustainability, which became a pillar of the sporting movement in the 1990s.

Since then, hosts have used the spotlight to tout green credentials — only to repeatedly draw skepticism from environmental campaigners.

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Sochi 2014, described by Russia as the “cleanest ever” Olympics, resulted in severe damage to a major mountain stream and illegal dumping of construction waste. In South Korea, PyeongChang 2018, despite being the first Games to obtain global certification for sustainable events, was criticized for cutting down a forest of rare trees.

One assessment comparing each event from 1992 to 2020 found that, contrary to official policy, Games were becoming less — not more — sustainable. “There is quite the disconnect between the rhetoric on the one hand and the outcomes on the other,” said Martin Müller, a professor of geography and sustainability at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Without any independent assessment, host countries are largely their own arbiters of success in reaching sustainability goals. “The [International Olympic Committee] doesn’t have fixed guidelines or grades that they impose on the host,” Müller added.

Scholars suggests that there is little hope for the Games to promote true sustainability without robust third-party monitoring, clear objectives and the threat of sanctions for noncompliance. “Everybody knows the IOC is not going to assign the hosting rights of the Games to another organizer if the original organizer fails to meet the sustainability requirements,” said Arnout Geeraert, a research fellow at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

At the same time, the IOC risks turning countries off the idea of hosting the Games if it makes the bidding process too onerous. By the time the final decision was made in 2015, Beijing’s only challenger for 2022 hosting rights was Kazakhstan’s Almaty, the scene of violent protests this month, after other candidates, including Oslo and Stockholm, dropped out for lack of public support.

Even without sanctions, independent monitoring of sustainability goals could help to fact-check host claims, but in a country such as China, that can be difficult. “Everything depends, of course, on the openness of the country that is actually staging the games,” Geeraert said.

For the Chinese Communist Party, hosting the Olympics is an important source of international prestige that it is determined to stage-manage carefully. While 2008 was billed as China’s arrival on the world stage, 2022 is a vehicle for Xi Jinping, the party’s most powerful leader in decades, to burnish claims of superior governance.

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Beijing will implement a strict “closed-loop” system to separate participants within a bubble and prevent coronavirus spread. A side-effect of the steadfast adherence to a “zero-covid” policy will be a reduced carbon footprint because of spectators being limited to a handful of approved Chinese residents.

Under Xi, the party has both prioritized environmental causes and become more intolerant of activists who challenge official propaganda. During the 2008 Summer Games, Beijing’s smog, energy-intensive and water-depleting construction were subjects of widespread debate and scrutiny from Chinese and international groups. There have been few external assessments of sustainability for Beijing 2022.

Given that Beijing is the seat of party power, solving the city’s aridity has long been on industrial planners’ to-do list.

In 2008, clean air was guaranteed for the Games by closing Beijing’s last steelmaking factory, as well as chemical and coking plants. Nonessential polluters were shuttered. Air quality improved by as much as 50 percent that summer.

Beijing’s smog has thinned dramatically since then. Last year, for the first time, the city hit nationally set targets for average concentration of PM2.5, tiny particulate matter that is harmful to health. Even so, average levels of pollutants in the capital’s air remain far above World Health Organization guidelines.

He Ping, the founding president of the International Fund for China’s Environment, warned in a commentary last year that ensuring blue skies for the Olympics remained an urgent task despite progress in the “war on pollution” because some sources of smog had been overlooked.

“If special measures are not taken to target industrial water vapor and ammonia emissions, widespread haze during the Winter Olympics will be difficult to avoid,” he wrote.

China’s pledge of an environmentally sustainable Olympics is part of a national goal to hit peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. As such, the Games are a kind of demonstration zone for its desired eco-credentials, with the latest green technologies being put on display for a global audience.

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Within the Olympic bubble, participants will be transported on more than 1,000 hydrogen-powered buses. Any nonrenewable energy use will be offset with afforestation. In Zhangjiakou alone, tree-planting covered 3,521 square miles to reach a net-zero target.

But many aspects of the plan appear to skirt a fine line between environmental protection and degradation. Early plans for the snow sport venues had to be redrawn after biologists noticed the proposed routes would cut through a protected forest. After the adjustment, 20,000 trees that remained in the way of construction were transplanted to a new forest park.

Despite almost total reliance on artificial snow, authorities have promised “freedom of snow use,” with ample stores being prepared ahead of events. They also promise this process is environmentally friendly.

It remains unclear how Beijing has been able to ensure vast quantities of artificial snow are available without depleting water supplies. Officials have said that water demand during the Games will account for 1.6 percent of the “total current water consumption” in the Yanqing district of Beijing and 9.8 percent in Chongli, the district of Zhangjiakou where events will be held, without specifying whether this is a total figure that accounts for piles of reserve snow made ahead of time. Final water-use data is meant to be released after the Closing Ceremonies.

Less clear is the broader environmental impact of a campaign to get 300 million Chinese involved in winter sports ahead of the Games. China’s natural skiing terrain is mostly in the far northeast and northwest, far from wealthy urban hubs. One analysis of the economic and natural suitability of China’s ski areas found that 16 percent had “dismal” prospects and only about a quarter were in “ideal” areas.

The core problem is that sustainability of the Olympics is a very flexible concept — completely unlike the demand for precision when measuring sporting achievement, Müller said. “Everybody would complain if you didn’t measure the milliseconds of the 100-meter sprint. But with sustainability, it’s really up for grabs for the host to decide what to do,” he said.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen in Taipei contributed to this report.

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